How good is Oxford University for Indians

Big interview - Rector of the elite University of Oxford: "You Swiss have exceptionally good universities"

Rector of the elite University of Oxford: "You Swiss have exceptionally good universities"

She is the rector of the best university in the world. Louise Richardson (58) is the first woman to head Oxford University. After Brexit, she will talk about new collaborations with Switzerland, omissions by the elite and what our children should learn in the future.

The venerable buildings breathe the spirit of their 900 year old history. Kings, heads of state and Nobel Prize winners studied here. Anyone entering the campus in Oxford feels transported back to the Middle Ages. The university, an hour's drive from London, is the third oldest in Europe after Bologna and Sorbonne - and, according to international university rankings, the best in the world. Margaret Thatcher, J. R. R. Tolkien and Stephen Hawkings are among the most famous recent graduates. Rector Louise Richardson welcomes “Switzerland at the weekend” in her office with a view of the campus. “These children will change the world,” she says.

Ms. Richardson, men still dominate the academic world. Just a year ago you were named the first female rector in the more than 900-year history of Oxford University. How did you feel about your historic calling?

Louise Richardson: If I were to deny the symbolism now, it would be dishonest. At Oxford it was over 700 years before women were even admitted to university. And again over 100, until a woman takes over the line. Unfortunately, there is still a huge discrepancy in society. Take the economy: most companies are almost exclusively made up of men.

The proportion of women among your professors is no better at 19 percent.

That's right, but that's because it's not easy to reconcile children and a career. Women continue to stay at home disproportionately often with their offspring. Only when we no longer regard caring for the next generation as a private matter but as a social responsibility will there be as many women in top positions as men.

Shouldn't universities, as places of enlightenment, be a lot further?

You are right about that. I often wonder how many books were not written, how many songs were not composed, and how many scientific discoveries were not made just because women were denied access to education for centuries.

Margaret Thatcher, herself an Oxford graduate, was elected Britain's first female Prime Minister back in 1979. Oxford is 30 years behind.

The pioneer

Louise Richardson (58) has been the first woman to head the British elite University of Oxford since 2016. The Irish political scientist is used to pioneering work. She initially made her career at Harvard with a research focus on terrorism and international security. She later became dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. The Oxford post is not the only one she has taken on as the first woman: in 2009 she became rector of the Scottish University of St. Andrews. Richardson is married with three children. Her best-known books include “What Terrorists Want: The Cause of Violence and How We Can Fight It”. As Oxford Rector, she now heads the officially best university in the world. In September it surpassed the American elite universities Harvard and Stanford for the first time in the international rankings. There is evidence that Oxford has existed since the 12th century, making it the third oldest university in Europe after Bologna and Paris. 6 Kings, 27 British Prime Ministers and 46 Nobel Prize winners studied at Oxford.

You must not forget that Theresa May was the second woman to be elected to this office just last summer. Progress is slow in all areas. Incidentally, Theresa May also studied here. The two women are no exception. I am proud to say that we have trained 27 prime ministers.

Are you sometimes burdened with past successes?

Of course I feel the pressure, but my position is an extraordinary privilege. Education has the power to change lives. Take my biography. I grew up in simple circumstances, but thanks to scholarships I was able to continue my education and, as the rector, I can now give something to young people on their way. That is wonderful.

What do you see as your most important task?

My goal is to keep attracting the best students in the world to Oxford. Any university is only as good as its students and professors. But we also need to improve our communication. I realize that Oxford is a very privileged institution. It is all the more important to show that we are making a significant contribution to social development.

However, elite universities are often seen as aloof.

Our image, at least in parts of society, does not correspond to reality. We are associated with privileges and, above all, wealth. This is probably due to the magnificent architecture on our campus and our centuries-old history. The world should see Oxford as the creative, cosmopolitan and progressive place that our students make of campus.

Brexit will change a lot. How much does the exit endanger your goals?

To put it mildly, Brexit is anything but welcome in Oxford. The implementation will be an enormous challenge. 15 percent of our students come from countries in the European Union. Up to now you could study with us at a reduced price. That will probably no longer be possible after Brexit. Our scientists are also unsure whether the EU will continue to invest money in their research.

There were similar concerns after the immigration initiative in Switzerland. Are you pushing for new collaborations with Swiss universities after Brexit?

You have some exceptionally good universities. We would like to establish closer ties with ETH in particular. However, Brexit will not only lose our universities, but the entire system. If you take the British and Swiss universities out of the international rankings, Europe loses its top position. The research center suffers from this. We saw the difficulties Swiss universities had to contend with, especially when it came to funding from the Horizon 2020 research program. This is a cautionary example. I hope that, like Switzerland, we will find a solution.

Did you underestimate the Brexit movement?

Yes, of course, I also wrongly assumed that Brexit would never be accepted. I also thought that Hillary Clinton would be the next US president. There seems to be a growing skepticism about the elite - worldwide. The universities have also misjudged the mood. We've been so busy talking to like-minded people that we've overlooked what's going on at the grassroots level. We cannot repeat this mistake.

Are Brexit and Trump above all an expression of a growing gap between the elite and the grassroots?

We must not forget that Hillary Clinton received over 2.5 million more votes. Even so, Donald Trump's victory remains worrying at every level. It will take generations to understand the election of Donald Trump. I think there is a real desire to change. That would also explain why Bernie Sanders, who embodies the opposite of Trump, received so many votes in the primaries. Those who wanted change have now received it.

What responsibility do universities have in times of fake news and the associated power struggles between government and the free press?

It has surely increased. Our job is to show students how to validate information and that getting their news only from social media is problematic. The self-referential system of the filter bubbles influences our perception. But the changes cannot be explained by fake news and social media alone.

What other factors play a role?

We - and by that I mean scientists worldwide - have failed to draw attention to the enormously growing social inequality. Today the 60 richest people own as much as the poorer half of the world's population. And the trend continues. How much money did the guys at Snapchat make from going public last week? Billions! As a society we should ask ourselves: How much money is enough for a single person?

What can parents do to prepare their children for increasing competition?

There is nothing more important than making children enjoy reading. You should put the iPad down and pick up a book - or at least read one on the tablet. Digitization will continue to advance. We don't know what jobs our children will one day do. Perhaps there are those that are yet to arise.

Then a stronger focus on the consequences of digitization would be appropriate?

Of course, it is an advantage when children and young people feel comfortable with new technologies. Here, too, we are certainly wondering whether students of English literature should not receive more training in using computers. As a university, however, it is not about teaching young people specific skills, rather they should learn to think critically, to be open to new ideas and to see globalization as an opportunity. Because globalization cannot be reversed.

In Switzerland, politicians complain that there are too many humanities and social scientists. Rather, students should choose a subject that benefits the economy.

I see it completely differently. These politicians don't think through to the end. It's not about training lawyers, engineers or shoemakers, but critically thinking, responsible individuals. That is crucial for our society. Do you know how many of our humanities and social scientists are being wooed by technology companies? Firms are interested in finding out how people think and why they think that way. Or take our history students: They learn which factors led to which decision. This is incredibly valuable, not just for your studies, but for your whole life. Just because some skills cannot be measured in terms of economic parameters does not mean that they are worthless.

How have your students changed over the past 10 to 20 years?

You work harder today than before because the competition has increased, especially since the financial crisis. Everyone who studies with us was top of the class in school, and now they are surrounded by people who are just as smart and committed as they are. The students compete against their fellow students on an ongoing basis. Just because you enjoyed a good education doesn't mean that you will find a good job today.

That sounds very pessimistic. What makes you optimistic about the future?

If that seems pessimistic, then it is wrong. I always say: we are the last bastion of optimism. Seeing these extremely intelligent, talented and motivated young people on campus fills me with a lot of hope. The common good is important to them. They don't want to get rich, they want to change the world. As a rector, I can't think of anything nicer.